GOLF'S ACE WITH HEART

GOLF'S ACE WITH HEART

From Chicken Soup for the Golfer's Soul The Second Round

Golf’s Ace with Heart

It was another tournament town, another cardboard hotel room, another evening spent staring at the too-blue, too-orange television images atop the Formica-covered bureau. Juan “Chi Chi” Rodriquez, vying for the lead at the 1967 Texas Open in San Antonio, was practicing putts on the carpet and thinking about the birdies that slipped away that afternoon.

The drone of the evening news suddenly riveted his attention: a reporter was interviewing a distraught woman whose home in Illinois had been destroyed by a tornado. All she had left were the clothes she wore. Rodriguez was so moved that he made a pact with himself. If he bagged the trophy the following day, he would send the tornado relief fund five thousand dollars. The next day he won—and so did the tornado victims.

Across the country, dozens of people have benefited from the compassion of this pencil-thin Puerto Rican golf pro. While some professional athletes spend their spare time doing beer commercials, Rodriguez checks up on things like incurable diseases, child abuse and world hunger.

Everybody on tour knows about his big heart, even the caddies. After each of his eight tournament wins, he has staged a lavish dinner party for them. “Chi Chi makes us feel we really count, ” says veteran tour caddie Richard Holzer.

Rodriguez’s benevolence has perhaps detracted from his golf game. For a man who once outdrove Jack Nicklaus by one hundred yards and is regarded by Ken Venturi as one of golf’s finest shotmakers, there should be more than eight titles, and his career earnings should have soared beyond $1 million. But Rodriguez’s mind was on other things.

“He’ll never be as great a golfer as he is a human being, ” asserts pro Bill Kratzert. “Sometimes he worries more about what’s happening in Asia than what’s happening on the course. During practice he talks incessantly about poverty overseas.”

At age forty-six in 1979, Rodriguez continued to play the PGA Tour nonstop while other pros his age were retiring. Although he hadn’t won an event in three years, he zealously pursued a comeback. The reason: He planned to give his next winner’s check to Mother Teresa for her leper colony in India.

Rodriguez came from a background riddled with the kind of despair he empathizes with today. He knows the feeling of a stomach aching with emptiness. Remembering is one of the things Chi Chi does best.

Rio Piedras is a poverty-scarred village just outside San Juan, Puerto Rico. Chickens and naked toddlers and skeletal dogs mingle around shacks alongside dirt roads where Chi Chi Rodriguez grew up.

One of six children, Chi Chi labored in the sugar-cane plantations with his father, from whom he learned sensitivity, goodness and hope. “My dad worked fourteen hours a day, every day of his life.” Rodriguez recalls. “He would come home dead-tired and hungry, but if he saw a kid walk by with a big belly—the sign of malnutrition—he’d give him his rice and beans. He did that so often I was concerned he wasn’t getting enough to eat, but he always told me that God would supply him with strength.”

Little time was available for recreation, but occasionally Chi Chi and his older brother would push each other down the highway in a cart. One day they crested a hill, rolled to the bottom—and discovered golf: “We saw this very green grass and men hitting tiny white balls with shiny steel sticks. I figured the guys who carried the bags for the players made money. It looked easier than being a waterboy at the plantation.”

Rodriguez was only seven, but he marched across the stately fairways of Berwind Country Club and asked about a job lugging “those bags.” The caddiemaster told him he was too small and suggested he start as a forecaddie, the person who marks the position of a player’s ball and searches for errant golf balls. Chi Chi eagerly accepted.

Along the way he invented his own version of golf. For a club he attached a pipe to a guava limb, and for a ball he shaped a tin can into a sphere; then he dug a few holes to “play.” Soon he could drive fifty to one hundred yards. All those swipes with guava limbs developed tremendous hand action, eventually making the 135-pound Rodriguez one of golf’s longest hitters.

Caddies were prohibited from playing Berwind, but sometimes, just before nightfall, Chi Chi would sneak onto the turf with borrowed clubs and play eighteen holes in forty-five minutes. On occasion, he was trailed by an irate greenskeeper, who took potshots at him with a revolver. “I’d hit and run, ” Rodriguez remembers. (He is still one of pro golf’s fastest players.) When he was only twelve, Chi Chi scored an astonishing 67 and knew golf was his future.

At the entrance of Berwind was an old Banyan tree that provided a perch for Rodriguez between shifts. There he watched the Cadillacs drive by and dreamed of the day he would be rich and waving to throngs of fans.

Rodriguez enlisted in the army at nineteen, making a name for himself in military golf tournaments during his two-year stint. After his discharge, he worked for a year as an aide at a psychiatric hospital in San Juan. He fed and bathed patients, played dominoes with them, calmed them when they became violent. The job was menial, paying eighty dollars a month, but Chi Chi calls it “the most rewarding work I’ve ever had. I was giving, and there’s nothing more enjoyable than that.”

He hadn’t forgotten his dream, however, and he found the key to it in 1957, when the Dorado Beach Resort opened. Among its amenities was Puerto Rico’s first pro-caliber golf course. Chi Chi headed there with a bundle of clippings about his army golf triumphs. Ed Dudley, the pro at the new course, was bringing a man from the states to assist him, but he grudgingly agreed that he and Chi Chi could play a game.

Rodriguez was so nervous that he shot an 89. “Mr. Dudley, I played awful today, ” he said, “but if you help me, I could become one of the best golfers in the world.” Dudley looked off in the distance, then said, “Okay, you’ve got a job.” And for the next three years Chi Chi worked for Dudley and Pete Cooper. Both men nurtured his potential, coaching him several hours a day.

When he was twenty-five, Rodriguez joined the Tour. From the start he made a comfortable income, and soon he was taking home trophies. He was a pacesetter when it came to injecting the bland pro-golf caravan with humor. “Americans are so hard-working, ” he explains, “and half of them don’t enjoy their work. So I try to give them something to smile about when they come out to watch us.”

As a successful golf pro, Rodriguez bought the big, shiny car he’d dreamed about in the Banyan tree, and a sprawling villa at Dorado Beach, too. But before he indulged in these trappings, he sent his brother through law school and bought homes for his mother and other family members. “This is the first house house we’ve had, ” says Iwalani, Chi Chi’s Hawaiian-born wife. “Until three years ago, we lived out of suitcases. When he’d give away money to strangers, I’d think, ‘We don’t even have a place to call our own yet!’” Says Chi Chi, “When someone hurts, I hurt. It’s tough being poor, and it’s so easy to say, ‘Well, I made it, so can everybody.’ That just isn’t true. Thousands of people don’t have a chance.”

Young people are more and more the focus of the golfer’s generosity. The Chi Chi Rodriguez Youth Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Clearwater, Florida, draws most of his charitable energies. Established to help troubled or abused youngsters, the foundation provides a program designed as a springboard into the free-enterprise system that also includes intensive academic tutoring and lots of golf instruction. They go on field trips to see how various businesses are run and to museums and sports events.

“Basically, these kids have been defeated all their lives, ” says Chi Chi. “So we’re introducing them to challenges and positive competition, showing them that they can succeed.”

During the 1979 J.C. Penney Golf Classic in Tampa, Florida, Rodriguez became interested in the project. Some youngsters from a juvenile detention center approached him for autographs. “The next thing I knew, ” recalls Bill Hayes, the counselor accompanying them, “Chi Chi was offering to come out and do a golf clinic. He arrived a few days later and hit balls over the prison walls. Afterward, he sat in the cells talking with the kids and ate dinner with them.” That’s when Hayes outlined to Rodriguez the plans for the Youth Foundation. Today 450 youngsters are enrolled.

Meanwhile, back home, Chi Chi’s kind touch is felt by the Children’s Hospital of Puerto Rico, which his annual tournament—the Chi Chi Rodriguez International Festival of Golf—continues to benefit.

But it’s not just the sweeping gestures Chi Chi is known for. “If someone is hurting, ” points out Bill Braddock, a longtime friend, “Chi Chi’s going to try to help. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if he gave up golf and started making house calls.”

Jolee Edmondson

[EDITORS’ NOTE: Ranked fourth on the Senior Tour’s all-time victory list, Chi Chi continues to devote his energies to his youth foundation, which currently serves over five hundred kids.]

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